Friday, February 12, 2010

It Isn't the Pitch, It's the Story

Last week I had a nice long chat with my agent and we were talking about future projects. I'd sent him a couple ideas via email (including, of course, the joke ideas, like an adventure story where all of the characters are penguins because Penguin Lit is the new Vampire Luv and there's already a major publishing house well-suited to selling Penguin Lit) and we were discussing which books I wanted to work on in what order. I've got my next three novels planned, and a couple other ideas bubbling away in Maybe Someday status. One of the upcoming book ideas is something that he felt was going to be a difficult sell these days, and I thought from the way he was talking about it that he didn't really get what the book was about.

"That's because I did a crappy job of pitching it in the email," I said.

"People keep saying that," he said. "And it just makes me want to bite them*. It's not the pitch, it's the story. If the heart of the story, the real meaning, isn't there, then who cares about the pitch? The book won't live up to it."

And that got me thinking, because I like to think and do it as often as I can and also because it's a good piece of advice that you don't hear much. Especially from agents. People talk a lot (and I mean a lot) about queries and the pitch and while I think that some people don't understand what a pitch is, it does seem that when you look at a great many queries, the biggest problem with the pitch is not the pitch, but the story. The book itself, that is.

Nobody wants to hear this, I'm sure. "You might think about working on the book some more," is something nobody wants to say, either. Well, I might, because I'm a jerk. But I don't mean to say that if there's a problem with the book that becomes evident in the query, it's because the book is stupid or based on a stupid idea and should be abandoned. What I mean is that the writer may not be focusing on the heart of the story.

What do I mean by the heart of the story? I sort of mean something like theme, certainly. But more than that, I think I'm talking about the core value that belongs to the writer which has sparked her to write this book in this way. Cormac McCarthy's book "The Road" is a narrative about a man and his son making their way through a post-apocalyptic America, yes, but the core value that drove McCarthy to write this was paternal love. And I'd bet that if you queried it as "a father's love for his son drives him to walk across America in search of a safe haven in Florida," it would get more agent/editor/publisher attention than "a man fights off roving bands of survivors in a dead land after a violent catastrophe." There are a lot of good reasons for that, mostly having to do with human responses to human emotions and readers caring about characters who are emotionally invested in their own stories. The book I'm revising for my agent is about friendship being tested by opposing worldviews. That's much more human and engaging, I think, than talking about revolution and politics.

Do not think that I mean this as just a different way to pitch the book in a query. Because that's not what I'm really getting at. What I really mean to say is that there is some reason you chose to write the book you've written. There is something that this book affirms for you, or explores on a deep level. (Well, maybe not, and if that's the case, your book likely sucks because it's empty of humanity and nobody wants to read that kind of book. There, I've said it.) Think about that original impulse in you, the thing inside you that responds to the book you've written. If necessary, make that into a more important, more active (but not blatant and in-your-face) part of the story. And when you've figured out what the real motivation behind you writing the book is and you've made sure that your book is actually about that, then two things (at least) will happen: it will be a better book, and it will be easier to talk about in a query. And as a better book that's easier for you to discuss, it should (I predict) be easier for you to connect with an agent, and easier for that agent to connect with a publisher. And in the end, that will also make it easier for your story to connect with readers.

I know--or I think I know--that some types of stories (spy stories especially) don't seem to have anything to do with relationships or really deep characters or emotions, so possibly this advice doesn't fit for all genres. I don't know, because that's way outside my area of expertise (or pretend expertise, at any rate). What do you think?

* Extra points to him for saying he wants to bite people. Seriously, he's so cute sometimes.


  1. Thank you for that advice.
    The thought of writing queries makes my stomach hurt. I can write a story, why can't I write an attractive paragraph about it?

    I liken it to trying to describe the outside of a building while you are inside, looking out a window.

    And "they" tell you to write pitches like the material you might find on book flaps. But when I do, I can't get that movie-trailer-doom voice out of my head when I read examples and they all start to sound a bit silly. (You know, "In a world.... He was a maverick telemarketer, she was an award winning housekeeper ...)

    Your advice has already got the cogs turning, my stomach still hurts, but I think there's something in the medicine chest for that. Thanks again.

  2. You are right, of course. But does that make me a bad person if I still hate the whole query/pitch systiem?

  3. Thanks so much, Scott for this amazing post. I think my earliest queries failed so miserably because I didn't focus on the heart of the story as you describe it here.

  4. Thanks so much, Scott for this amazing post. I think my earliest queries failed so miserably because I didn't focus on the heart of the story as you describe it here.

  5. Great post Mr. Bailey.

    "If the heart of the story, the real meaning, isn't there, then who cares about the pitch?"

    I reworked my query more than I care to remember, but now that I have, I have two partial requests to my name. All because of my pitch. It's a valuable learning tool to be able to write one that is clear and concise. The simplest question being, "What is the story about?" Answer that without the backstory, without the characters, without using too many big words and there's your pitch.

  6. Is that a jab at at Monarch, at the end there, Scott? I suppose that was my brilliant idea - to make the spy story about human emotion. Still working on that.

    This post is great. I've always believed that a query should have one sentence that gets to the heart of the book, and everything else should build around that. You've identified what the heart of the book usually is, or should be, so that works out nicely for my theory. :)

  7. I'm feeling a tad resistant to your message this morning, Mr. Bailey, only because I remember reading a story synopsis from Jhumpa Lahiri that felt so convoluted and boring and ended up being accurate without capturing the heart of the story, which was too subtle and complex (in my opinion, at least) to be able to be captured in a sentence. I'm in a phase right now where I feel like story frameworks are working against me telling the type of stories I want to tell, so maybe I'm just in a disagreeable mood. I think that some stories are inspired by an element that can't be captured in a few words. Those are the types of stories I hope to write, although currently I end up using a regular story framework. Can you tell I'm completely confused in my art?

  8. AJ: The main thing is that the "heart of the story" has to be there In The Story or your query won't matter. A good pitch won't get a hollow book on the shelves.

    Chuck: Queries suck. The whole process is absurd.

    laurel: Yes, just make sure that your story does have a "heart" before you query! That's the real point.

    Anne: Wow, that's good news! I had no idea! Congratulations. What's that slur about big words, though?

    Ivana: "Monarch" is cool because it ignores the conventions of soulless spy novels. I was thinking of people like Tom Clancy, where the technology of danger is way more important than the people, who are mostly just puppets.

    This post is sort of me musing about the point I've reached in the draft of my WIP, where I have stopped and am wondering exactly what the book is about and why I wrote it.

  9. Davin: I've been there. Like, twice a day. The thing is, I'm not really talking about queries or how to talk about stories here. I'm really just saying that if a writer has no real reason for writing a story, there's no real reason to read it. Structure or style is beside the point. Take my Horatio book for example. I wrote it because I wanted to examine the idea of trust and friendship, and that book is (or should be, if I don't let myself get pushed off-topic) about trust and friendship. That's all I mean. Sort of like the way Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" might be about how our passions could let us be of good use to the world. Or something. Naturally I don't really know why she wrote that story.

    Speaking of frameworks working against us, I have totally jettisoned the 3-act structure for the end of "Cocke & Bull" and I'm just going with a large 2-part form, of cause and effect (or, maybe, of decision and consequence) (or on the other hand, maybe it's the myth of Sisyphus). Let the story beat the form up.

  10. Okay, I get this. Thanks, Mr. Bailey. When I was in college, I took several art classes from the same teacher, David Hollowell, who constantly confounded me. Every class, every year, he would carry on about the same message, something about him only being able to discuss work from his intentions and how success could only be evaluated through intentions. Only towards the end of my time in college did his message start to sink in. We are successful if we manage to do what we try to do. For me, that's the capturing of the inspiration and holding on to that. I think that's what you are getting at too.

  11. This is a good point, Scott. One of the things I've only recently realized (about the book I'm not actively working on) is the theme of it. The heart of that particular trilogy being "If our memories make us who we are, then what does it mean when not all our memories are our own?"

    I find it funny that it's easier for me to develop that thought for a book I haven't looked at in nearly a year than it is to come up with the same thought for the one I'm currently ripping apart.

    I have an inkling of an idea of a theme for Callarion at Night, but there are so many to pick from as the main one that it's ridiculous. Hopefully the big boy will pop up once I step away from it.

  12. I think you are spot-on.
    One of the good aspects of writing queries and pitches--which we all agree sucks--is that it does force us to define the heart of the story. If we can't, the book is not ready.

  13. So, so true. It's something we don't talk about much but the heart of our work is the NOVEL itself. That's key. The query only takes us so far.

    And, aren't you so blessed to have an agent to bounce ideas off of? No more query slush piles for your ideas. That rocks.

  14. Oh, now this is great. You should kick that filter to the curb more often, good sir. I'd agree that if a book isn't affirming something for you, if you haven't written a significant portion of your guts out onto the page/screen/whatever, then something'll be lacking. It could be just me, and how I write, but damn! Bloody well mean something in your fiction, wouldja? We've already got Finnegan's Wake for fancy literary tricks, thanks.

  15. The query that I used with my agent my agent was not a great query (although it didn't suck), but that doesn't matter. The writing in the manuscript and the characters / premise is what inspired her offer for representation.

    I read a lot of queries, thanks to the Public Query Slushpile. Often times I see people resubmit four or five times - in as many days - and I have to stop and wonder if the writers have invested that much diligence in the manuscript, because that's what matters most.

    Great post, Scott. And thanks to your agent for his participation-by-proxy.

  16. Great post, I love it! I think people in the writing community (and I am most certainly guilty) tend to be too nice and therefore never (or rarely) get around to saying, "Well, I think it's the story that's not working." You're lucky to have an agent who can say that to you! And your conclusion that it's the "heart" that's often missing in those stories that fall flat is great. Definitely something to keep in mind when thinking of my next story idea. (Of course, there are other reasons stories fall flat too, right? I wish we could be more honest about those, among ourselves. But then, those of us receiving the criticism would have to be able not to take it personally, which I acknowledge is quite hard!) Thanks!!

  17. That was really insightful and thought-provoking. Thank you!

  18. Okay, so I had no problem writing a decent query. I even managed several full and partial requests (still pending-UGH!). But then I finally wrote a book that grabbed my young audience spoke to their insecure teen selves and the query sticks.

    I can't get it right and I'm starting to wonder if the flashy unfeeling stuff does grab the agents initially but then the story falls short.

    How do i get their attention with something more normal? Like a good Judy Blume story, simple yet important and real.

    Is there a place for this type of YA book today?

    And can an unpublished author reach an agent with this story or is it only reserved for the already established writers?

    Loved your thoughts and ideas on this subjec. Its deep - I like that!


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